Arivaca is a town with a difference. While most of America backs the White House announcement last week to curb surging numbers of migrants crossing the Mexican border, many residents of this dusty, former gold-prospecting town 10 miles north of Mexico have chosen a different foe: the border patrol.
Theirs is an odd counterpoint to the political drive to tighten the border against impoverished migrants – overwhelmingly women and children – from Latin America. But Arivaca’s stand has become a beacon for more progressive policies in what has become a complex but defining voter issue.
The federal border patrol, townsfolk claim, has become a police force operating outside legal authority, which subjects migrants to racial profiling and unlawful searches. Flush with a $30bn boost in Washington-authorised spending, the agency is planning to double its number of agents to 39,000 – hypothetically enough to place one every 100 yards along the entire 1,900-mile US-Mexico border. “This is the face of militarisation,” says Peter Ragan of Arivaca group People Helping People, gesturing towards a checkpoint well inside US territory. “Searches are done to intimidate and harass. They can assert control at any time. There’s no accountability, no transparency and no oversight.”
Protesters say the agency, which gets more funding than the FBI, Secret Service, DEA and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined, is now an important customer for contractors previously focused on supplying drones and sensing equipment for use in foreign military deployments.
They claim the “border surge” has led to the erosion of civil liberties, a decline in tourism, diminishing property values – and has forced migrants to trek through remote and dangerous desert areas. Even as the overall number of migrants has fallen, figures show, deaths from dehydration and exposure remain constant. At night in Arivaca, there’s a near constant border patrol presence, searching for migrants moving under cover of darkness. “Our lives have changed. We have less freedom,” says protester Carlotta Wray. “We see helicopters, border patrol on the road everywhere. We travel, we get checked.” In one encounter a border agent allegedly told a local man: “You have no rights. You’re a suspect because you live here.”
According to border patrol, the Arivaca checkpoint is part of a multi-tiered defence that is successfully reducing the flow of migrants and drugs into the US. “Most cars don’t spend more than 10 seconds there,” says border patrol spokesman Andy Adame. “They ask your citizenship and then you’re on your way.”
But the political complexity of US border enforcement is exacerbated by allegations of excessive force. A report leaked to the Los Angeles Times found there were 67 shootings involving border patrol agents between January 2010 and October 2012, resulting in 19 deaths. By the agency’s count, they have responded with deadly force 43 times, causing 10 deaths, most of them unarmed migrants.
One of those killed was a 16-year-old high school student who was shot and killed across the border in Nogales in 2012.
Civil liberties groups accuse the agency of a shoot-to-kill policy. Rapid expansion, say critics, has led to poor training and a bullying culture. In one lawsuit a border patrol agent in Chula Vista, California, is accused of leaping on the bonnet of a car driven by an unarmed mother of five and shooting her. In another, a customs officer in Texas is accused of violently pushing a disabled woman to the ground. She subsequently suffered a miscarriage.
To many townsfolk, it is the border patrol, not Mexican drug smugglers, who have made life worse. It claims increased border patrol presence has led cartels to transform into paramilitaries. Increased security on the US side has forced the prices of guides – coyotes – and smugglers up, which plays into the hands of the Mexican gangs.
But the political dimension continues to grow in importance. The recent electoral defeat of powerful Republican Eric Cantor in West Virginia is credited to his perceived support for an immigration “amnesty”.
In Arizona, border agents say the agency is committed to stepping up enforcement. “Even five years ago, the area was out of control,” says Adame. “There were aliens running everywhere. Property was getting wrecked. Go out there now and we have a lot more control than we’ve ever had. If we remove the checkpoints, the criminal gangs will come straight back.”
That doesn’t impress protesters. They accuse the agency of abusive treatment that contributes to the death and suffering of migrants. “It’s just constant harassment, with no results,” says Ragan.